Wigham, John Richardson (1829–1906), lighthouse engineer and businessman, was born 15 January 1829 at 5 South Gray St., Edinburgh, youngest son among four sons and three daughters of John Wigham, shawl manufacturer and quaker, and Jane Wigham (née Richardson). Their mother's death (1830) forced resourcefulness on John at an early age. After basic schooling in Edinburgh, he moved to Dublin aged 14 to join the business of his brother-in-law, Joshua Edmundson, a leading hardware merchant and manufacturer. Established since 1830 at Stafford (later Wolfe Tone) St., specialising in gas fittings and brass foundry work, the Edmundson factory stimulated Wigham's commercial and inventive genius.
On Joshua Edmundson's death (1848) he inherited complete control of the business, which, after a subsequent fire, was rebuilt to higher manufacturing standards, retaining the founder's name in the title Joshua Edmundson & Co. Wigham gradually extended the sales outlet on nearby Capel St., a stronghold of Dublin's nineteenth-century manufacturing and retail trades, where a large, impressive showroom was the first of several, including branches in Edinburgh, London, and the Channel Islands. He exploited the trend for replacement of oil by gas fuel, especially in marine lighthouse illumination. Although lighthouses were not uniquely suited to gas, as their individual circumstances and performance demands varied, Wigham promoted his own highly efficient gas illumination as a first option or replacement for existing fuel, mainly oil. Indeed, his first gas systems were oil-based, evolving to high-grade cannel coal as his main source. Conservative resistance to change never deterred him, and he won contracts with the Ballast Board and subsequently with the Commissioners of Irish Lights, the statutory lighthouse authority from 1867. He not only illuminated but also supplied the necessary lanterns and mechanical apparatus, as other public sector and private contracts increased when gas power gained acceptance.
About this time Wigham became engineer to the Commercial Gas Co. of Ireland, for whom he designed a gas works at Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire). He was also a director for life (from 1866) of the Alliance and Dublin Consumers’ Gas Co. However, he concentrated chiefly on marine safety, both as a business and as an extension of his philanthropic quaker ideals. He developed new navigational buoys and fog signals, the handmaidens of safety at sea. He invented the gas-lit buoy in 1861 for the Clyde estuary in Scotland, and over thirty years later a petroleum version with a long-burning wick giving three months unattended service. His greatest pioneering work was for the Irish lighthouse authorities, whom the Elder Brethren of Trinity House, London, could sometimes, but not always, browbeat with their veto and royal privilege concerning coastal navigation aids. In 1865 Wigham invented a small-scale, on-site gasworks, primarily aimed at supplying lighthouses, and a 340-jet gas burner giving adjustable light intensity up to twelve times the highest existing candlepower. He first installed these at the Baily light in Howth, Co. Dublin. The system became world-renowned, as did his subsequent inventions of an intermittent beam (Wicklow Head, 1868) and revolving signals (Rockabill and Hook Head, 1871), refining the coded visual identification of each lighthouse.
His ever-improving inventions of complex ‘group-flashing’ lights amazed clients and were praised by shipping firms, by sailors of every rank, and (most importantly for Wigham's reputation) by the eminent Irish physicist John Tyndall (qv), adviser both to the Board of Trade and to Trinity House. The Elder Brethren engaged Wigham to illuminate two of their lighthouses. Internal dissent and blatant political interference prevented them from awarding him further British contracts, despite admitting that his gas-powered lights were superior to their mainly oil-fired systems. Officially endorsing their own engineer's hostility towards Wigham's inventions, they rejected his experimental lights at Happisburgh (also known as Hazebrough, Haiseboro, or Haisbro’) in Norfolk and South Foreland near Dover. Years of apparent effort to frustrate his hopes of lighthouse commissions in Britain came to a head in 1883, when Wigham discovered that Trinity House had adapted his design for superposed lenses to their oil-fired light at Eddystone, near Plymouth, without reference to himself. John Tyndall resigned from the Board of Trade and campaigned, through parliament and a ferocious exchange of letters in The Times with the board's chairman, Joseph Chamberlain, to honour Wigham's intellectual rights. Trinity House (wisely, in Tyndall's view) resolved the crisis to the tune of £2,500 in compensation. Wigham told Tyndall in 1884 that the Board of Trade had tried (in vain) to seize all his patents, thus revealing the extent of official interest in controlling his inventions. Wigham's moral victory confirmed him as the world's leading contemporary navigational safety innovator. By 1890, while the matter remained the subject of government-appointed committee hearings, several versions of Wigham's gas-lit system were used at eleven Irish lighthouses, and his other marine safety devices, navigational buoys and beacons, sold worldwide.
Other interests were not neglected. Actively encouraging quaker ideals of sobriety, temperance, and philanthropy, Wigham flourished in Dublin's commercial and public life, latterly championing electric power by supplying it aboard steamships on the Irish sea. Apart from hardware, gas, and marine concerns (including the London offshoot Edmundson's Electricity Corporation), he was a JP, a director of the Dublin United Tramways Co., chairman of Blackrock town commissioners in Co. Dublin, president of the YMCA, secretary and president of Dublin chamber of commerce, and a member of several distinguished bodies including the RDS and RIA, an associate member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and a fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. He regularly read scientific papers to these and other bodies. About four years before his death he suffered a disabling stroke at a British Association meeting in Belfast, and his prepared address on improved lighthouse illuminants was read by a substitute speaker. Politically, Wigham was a crusading unionist (as was Tyndall) and a committee member of the Irish Unionist Alliance. He actively drew quaker support away from the Gladstonian Liberals in the late 1880s for adopting a home rule policy which he believed would undermine the Irish economy. He twice declined offers of knighthood in 1897, owing to quaker unease with distinctions.
He married (4 August 1858) Mary, daughter of Jonathan Pim (qv), leading Dublin businessman and first Irish quaker MP. They had six sons and four daughters, of whom several died young. Wigham died 16 November 1906, aged 76, as the eventual result of his stroke, at his residence, Albany House, Monkstown, Co. Dublin. He was buried at the Friends’ cemetery, Temple Hill, Blackrock.